Thinking Kink: Gay S&M in Pop Music, Then and Now

I'm not of an age to remember first-hand just how much of a commotion Frankie Goes to Hollywood caused with their song "Relax," given that it was released in 1983, the year I was born. But it's a testament to the power of combining S&M with queerness that it remains a notorious song and video, 28 years later. Media-weary children of today know that the best way to get attention for your product is to have it banned—unfortunately at the time, DJ Mike Read thought he was genuinely doing the right thing when he took one look at the cover of "Relax" (see image at right), heard the suggestive lyrics (including—gasp—the incendiary words "suck" and "come"), and refused to play it. BBC Radio joined Read in solidarity by banning the song, and subsequently BBC TV banned the video too. FGTH could only watch, devastated, as their song climbed to number one in the charts and stayed there for five weeks...

The video, now easily watched on YouTube, seems conservative by today's standards. It features singer Holly Johnson in an utterly incongruous (and utterly '80s) grey business suit being squired around an S&M club by a band of leather and PVC-clad male marauders (token female serving behind the bar with a chain around her neck), while a fat chap in a Roman costume looks on with delight. There are people in cages, bondage, simulated orgies and suggestions of golden showers—oh, and Johnson wrestles with a tiger cub. What I could never figure out was whether it was the S&M imagery that got the right-wing moralists frothing at the mouth, or the highly unsubtle suggestions of gay frolics (in the final frames, Holly Johnson is seen pretending to "ride" a lucky gentleman).

I think I got my answer in 2009, though: It's both. The AMAs that year saw Adam Lambert put on a BDSM-themed performance of his song "For Your Entertainment," which included male and female dancers writhing around in leather harnesses and peephole bras, and Lambert leading two lovely young fellows around on leashes. What caused Good Morning America to cancel his morning appearance soon afterwards has never quite been specified—was it the leather, the leashes, the simulated blowjobs (both male and female dancers got their heads pressed to Lambert's crotch, I would add—at least he was an equal-opportunity offender) or the spontaneous kiss Lambert planted on his male keyboardist's young lips? Feministing nailed the media hypocrisy perfectly: "Bondage-themed performances seem old hat at awards shows (except, hmm, they are usually headlined by female performers). Seriously, what's the big deal? Oh right. Adam Lambert's male. And gay." However, I do think there's more to it than just discomfort with gay men (though there's that, too).

Combining male homosexuality with kink still has the potential to be explosive precisely because the media still feels the need to de-sexualize gay men in order to neutralize them—while doing the opposite to lesbians, who, if the media are to be believed, do nothing but writhe all over each other all day every day, and never have to take the garbage out or pay the phone bill. I remember writing at the time of Lambert's performance, "It did take bravery for Adam Lambert to stand up and be counted as a randy, frisky gay man rather than just an emasculated camp caricature"—gay men in popular culture are still so often reduced to the bitchy best friend (think Stamford or Anthony in Sex And The City, or Jack in Will and Grace) rather than recognized as sexual beings in their own right.

However, objections to Lambert's performance came from sources other than just the conservative right wing. One commenter on the Feministing piece said the performance "came off as a abusive and violent" and another said, "The fact that it's a queer man participating in a transgressive and dehumanizing portrayal of sexuality doesn't make it any less offensive." For some, you don't get a free pass to go all BDSM on our asses just because you're already what society considers a "sexual outlaw." And yes, I'd agree that gay men can't claim to be "above" misogyny just because they're outside the heterosexual mainstream, but I'd highly disagree that Lambert's piece of kinky theatre was anything other than an exercise in attention grabbing.

I guess those who see BDSM as inherently violent feel differently, but they'll have to see these posts for why that is a misperception of kink. It just goes to show, though—the more things change, the more things stay the same. In the '80s, many were horrified by queerness AND S&M. Now, we claim to have "Relax(ed)" about such things, but our media's reaction implies otherwise, as does the reaction of some feminists.

Previously: The Politics of BDSM Fashion, A Visit to the Sex Toy Store

Top image from Flickr user Badgreeb Records.

Comments

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I think gay s&m is sexy even

I think gay s&m is sexy even though I'm a straight woman! I love yaoi and gay men feeling free to be themselves even if what they are is offensive to the mainstream. It's not healthy to pretend to be someone or something you're not!

I don't totally buy this.

I don't totally buy this. Though I agree that gay men are often reduced to asexual, camp caricatures by mainstream media, they're just as often reduced to their sexuality and portrayed as over-sexed predators who want nothing more than to catch a glimpse of a straight guy's ass in the locker room. As for lesbians (real ones anyway), they're just as frequently portrayed as sexless because (being sarcastic here) everyone knows women don't actually like sex and how can sex happen without a penis in the mix anyway? You've definitely hit on an interesting topic, and I'd be interested in further exploration of the relationship between media portrayals of kink and queerness (it seems to me that the two are often conflated), but this analysis seems incomplete to me.

Yes, I agree with what you're

Yes, I agree with what you're saying up to a point - I'm trying to think of some recent examples of the 'predatory gay' though, and all I can come up with is some cheesy scene from Ace Ventura back in the 90s! I suppose my point is that the trade-off in the growing 'acceptability' of male homosexuality has been to sanitise it so that gay men are seen as great for fashion and interior design advice (Queer Eye), and providing friendship for straight girls (SATC) but the actual idea they might still want to fuck has been somewhat glossed over. But I suppose the fact they wouldn't have Adam Lambert on Good Morning America just because he did a sexy, homoerotic performance, does imply a conviction that all gay men must be 'over-sexed predators' who won't be able to control themselves on morning TV!

As for lesbians, I know what you mean - the stereotype of the humorless, sexless butch does still loom in my mind, but I feel like in popular culture it's generally been replaced by the non-threatening, femme lesbian happy to perform for male approval. Even in shows like The Wire, where the makers developed Kima Greggs into a rich character who was far more than just her sexuality, they still felt the need to throw in the inevitable 'hot' lesbian sex scene. I'm struggling to think of depictions of lesbians where there are no references to sex or sexuality - maybe you can suggest me some?

I absolutely agree about the conflation between queerness and kink - I do wonder if there's a memo on every TV producers' walls saying 'We're shooting a scene in a gay bar, quick - GET OUT THE LEATHER!'. ;)

Using lame in this context is

Using lame in this context is ableist

You're right. Apologies.

Comment changed, thanks for pulling me up on this.

on that note about lesbians . . .

I agree with your take on gay male sexuality being censored and downplayed in mainstream media, while lesbianism (or playing at lesbianism) is celebrated. No one cancelled talk show appearances for Madonna after her sassy performance kiss with Britney Spears or stopped allowing Rihanna to appear publicly following her risque videos and performances for "S&M" or "Te Amo" - because for the (heterosexual) male gaze, that's sexy. What is less clear to me is where the American public is with S&M - or what dis/comfort with a performance like Adam Lambert's is attributed to queer male sexuality or S&M. It's probably a combination of both, but I'd be interested to know more specifically - especially given the widespread popularity of "Fifty Shades of Grey."

Where are we with S&M?

Yup, good question. I think it's easy for the media to spin the 50 Shades success into evidence that we're more comfortable with S&M as a population, but I'm not convinced.

Firstly, conservative outlets are as uncomfortable with it as ever - both left and right wing commentators in the UK have described the book as 'depraved' and 'misogynistic', which shows a lack of understanding about what kink is. Secondly, 50 Shades depicts S&M pretty mildly - I think some kinksters would describe it as 'regular' sex with a bit of spanking and hair pulling thrown in. The kink is also not even the main focus of the trilogy (as the media would have you believe) - the sex/kink scenes are spaced very far apart and most of the writing is taken up with feelings, love and relationships, as in the average 'chick lit' book.

I think this is probably what accounts for 50 Shades' success - it's not so far away from a Jackie Collins novel that it feels too transgressive, but it's got something 'naughty' in it that makes everyone want to read it and see what the fuss is. Now, if the Story of O - which contains whipping that draws blood, branding, chaining with irons, anal stretching, genital piercing to name but a few of the things 50 Shades is missing! - became an overnight bestseller, THEN I might believe we're all becoming groovy about S&M. But it is a pretty extreme book, so I doubt that'll happen.

As you say, it's hard to see what bothers the media more - kink or queerness - and there is great hypocrisy that shows itself depending on the gender and appearance of the artist using kinky imagery. I guess Adam Lambert might have caused an equal shitstorm by just grinding sexily against his male dancers without any BDSM props - but I couldn't help but think him walking two guys around on leashes gave the media an extra angle to feel uncomfortable about!